Narcos: Rise of the Cartels – Review
Follow Genre: Turn-based Strategy
Developer: Kuju Entertainment
Publisher: Curve Digital
Platform: Switch, PS4, PC, Xbox One
Tested on: Switch

Narcos: Rise of the Cartels – Review

Site Score
Good: Good voice acting
Bad: Bland and mediocre gameplay
User Score
(4 votes)
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Rating: 2.0/10 (4 votes cast)

Back in 2015, Netflix released the first season of Narcos on an unsuspecting public. The series proved to be successful enough to receive two more seasons, the last of which dropped in 2017. Fast forward another two years and we’re presented with a video game based on the property. Is Narcos: Rise of the Cartels a worthwhile reason to revisit the drug-fueled Colombia of El Patron or are you better off seeking your thrills elsewhere?


The 18 main story chapters are a retelling of the first season of the series. It’s the story of how the DEA took on Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel in Colombia. Everything is presented here through a mix of actual footage from the tv show, cutscenes, and narration. Players have the opportunity to play on either side of the conflict, either joining forces with Steve Murphy and the DEA or with Escobar’s cocaïne dealing Medellin Cartel. Unfortunately, sticking this close to the show means that there are no surprises to anyone that has seen the series, and if you take away the association with said series, there’s not a lot of meat left here. The genre just doesn’t lend itself to a lot of character depth, but the game does serve as a decent companion piece for those that are fans of the show.


The Netflix show has a unique visual style, and Narcos: Rise of the Cartels attempts to emulate this by sprinkling bits of show footage through their fast-paced cutscenes. While this is a good idea, in theory, it falls flat here simply because of the character models used in those cutscenes. Characters look wooden, with stilted animations and models that look like they were leftovers from the previous console generations. Juxtaposing these models against their real-life counterparts doesn’t do the game’s graphics any favors and as a result, Narcos’ cutscenes are just ugly. These issues are less apparent during actual gameplay, as the maps are presented from a top-down view. When the game’s camera shifts to an on-the-ground perspective, which happens when using counteractions, you’re confronted with just how bad everything looks again though.


If it ain’t broke, why fix it? Narcos: Rise of the Cartels makes excellent use of the existing soundtrack that was composed for the series. This makes perfect sense and helps set the mood immensely. Adding to this is the voice acting, which is good, although hearing the same snippets over and over on the battlefield can get tiring pretty quickly. Nevertheless, the narration in the cutscenes is done convincingly well. Kuju Entertainment went the cost-effective way and elected to use cheaper voice actors to bring certain characters to life. While you won’t hear Pedro Pascal’s actual voice, new and original voice acting is still preferable over repurposing audio cut from the show, which some other licensed games have done.


Kuju Entertainment took a gamble when they decided to turn Narcos in a turn-based strategy game, as it’s a genre that doesn’t seem suitable for the license. Unfortunately, their gamble didn’t pay off, and we’re left with a barebones tactical experience that uses the Narcos license as a crutch. You take command of a team of either DEA officers or cartel members and are tasked with completing a variety of objectives as you make your way through the 18 main story chapters as well as a variety of side missions. These include placing surveillance material, escaping from specific locations and eliminating enemies among others. This might seem like there’s plenty to do here, but in the end, all missions are just variants of the same formula. Additionally, the game never really hits a decent pace and feels very slow to play. 

There are six different classes of units, each with their own specific abilities and upgrades. You can only take up to five units onto the battlefield at a time and the choice of what units to take on a specific mission can truly make a difference. During their turn, units can make a full movement, and the distance they can move depends on a variety of factors, including what gear they are wearing and what weapon they carry. After moving, a unit can then take an action. These actions include shooting, reloading or interacting with an objective. After taking a turn with a single character, the AI then gets to do the same, alternating the initiative between players between each unit, unlike most strategy games that allow you to move all your units before ending your turn.

It proves a bit of tactical depth, as moving a single unit might mean you’re leaving another unprotected. Permadeath is a factor here, but overall things never really get too difficult if you have any experience with turn-based tactical games. This is simply because the AI is just so damn stupid. Most enemy units will simply charge forward, allowing you to use counteractions before they can get into a useful position. Speaking of counteractions, these are one of the more unique features, with the game switching into the third-person mode and letting you aim and shoot at an enemy during their movement. While these actions are satisfying to pull off, they need to be earned and as a result, you’ll end up saving them for when you really need them. In the end, using these actions where you’re controlling your unit in real-time mostly serves to remind you that a first-person-shooter would’ve been a far better choice for a Narcos game. 


We’re not quite sure what Kuju Entertainment’s aim was with this game. The genre doesn’t fit the source material, the execution of the game is mediocre, and it’s about four years too late to tie in with the series itself. With a plethora of other, better, turn-based strategy games around to spend your hard-earned cash on. It’s not a functionally bad game, but it’s tough to recommend to anyone apart from the most hardcore Narcos fans. Overall, everything about Narcos: Rise of the Cartels screams missed opportunity.

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Rating: 2.0/10 (4 votes cast)
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Narcos: Rise of the Cartels - Review, 2.0 out of 10 based on 4 ratings

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